Why I don’t believe focus groups work for marketing

by Zoe K

I’ve always felt there’s a problem with focus groups. Something that has never sat right with me.


The problem is, I’ve never been able to figure out what it was. I could never put my finger on it.


Then, the other night, I watched an episode of my new favourite TV show, Brain Games. And I suddenly realised…


They are full of liars.


Now, not purposefully. I’m not saying people go into them with the intention to lie. That’s insulting and the issue is far more complex than that.


In fact, it is the complete opposite. People go into them with the intention to help. But that is where the lies lie!


Before we really get into this, let’s get some background.


What is a focus group?


A focus group is when between 8 and 12 people are brought together in a controlled environment to discuss a product, service or design.


The discussion is facilitated by a moderator who uses pre-set questions to help steer the conversation so that the client (usually a business) can get answers to their queries.


It is a chance for people to openly critique a product, service or design. An opportunity for businesses to understand their target audiences’ likes and dislikes.


And to be fair, they can provide some incredible results.


A famous example of their power comes from Betty Crocker back in the 1950s. Everything in their research indicated that their new pre-made cake mixture should be flying off the shelves. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.


To understand what on earth was going on, Betty Crocker decided to use a focus group. Incidentally, it was one of the first focus groups used in a commercial setting.


The results showed that the target audience felt using a pre-made cake mixture was cheating. To the audience, it felt like they weren’t really baking.


Betty Crocker decided to revisit the recipe. They introduced a step whereby people had to add an egg to the mixture. Suddenly, the pre-made mixture was flying off the shelves and sales increased.


So, good can come from focus groups.


But. At the same time. It is also worth noting that the infamous New Coke disaster also stemmed from focus groups.


Remember it? In the 80s, Coca-Cola was seeing a drop in market share and sales. Pepsi was competing aggressively with them and had a sweeter cola recipe.


Coca-Cola decided to revisit its recipe in an attempt to compete. Focus groups and blind-testing had shown that the new recipe for Coca-Cola was preferred to the original version.


Problems started once the new product was launched. The public and media hated New Coke.


But why though? Market research had clearly shown that the recipe was preferred over the original Coke.


The issue was one of brand loyalty and motivations. Most people didn’t hate the new recipe. They hated the fact that they had lost something they were emotionally connected to. Something that the market research hadn’t considered.

If we look back again at what focus groups are, they’re a chance for people to openly critique a product, service or design.

Now, think about it. What happens when you ask people to critique something?


People will try to find problems.


Not to be negative. But to be helpful.


However, those problems don’t always actually exist. Or, because the participants are focusing on it heavily, they exaggerate an issue.


And this can impact on innovation. Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, Johnathon Ive, said this about focus groups:


“They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone and produce blank inoffensive products.”


The Jeans Experiment


Back to my unhealthy TV habits. Brain Games is an amazing show that I totally recommend for anyone in marketing. Each episode is a series of short psychology experiments that show how we all think and react in different situations. In this particular episode (season 2; episode 9 – You Decide) it looks at how decisions are made.


Unfortunately, there isn’t a YouTube clip of the Jeans Experiment, but allow me to explain.


In an attempt to explore how groups make decisions, they set up a fake focus group. All the participants are real and not informed of the real premise.


For the experiment, the group is given 5 pairs of jeans and are asked to decide which one is their favourite and why.


Each person gives their reasons. “This pair is thicker than the others”, “I prefer the colour on this one”, “The cut is better on this pair”.


The catch – they are all the same pair of jeans.


So, what’s going on here?


Based on this experiment, people will find differentiating factors when there are none.


Why? Well, as Dr. Daylian Cain, who studies decision-making at Yale, says:


“This experiment reveals we are largely unaware of the reasons for why we choose what we choose. In fact, the reasons might be uninteresting. Perhaps… we just randomly chose (one pair of jeans) but that’s not a satisfying explanation so we come up with one.”


That’s right. We will just make up reasons when we have none, just to satisfy randomness.


Remember, we’ve explored previously how people try to look for patterns. Patterns make sense to us. Randomness doesn’t. So, we try to justify it.


And this is one of the things that makes me uneasy about focus groups. The way participants’ decisions can be influenced by randomness, leading to illogical reasonings.


But there’s more…


That’s not the only thing that can impact focus groups. Other psychological issues can raise their ugly head in focus groups;

  • Groupthink – a phenomenon that occurs when people are influenced for social harmony and conformity which leads to irrational ideas
  • Social desirability bias – when people want to be seen favourably by their peers which leads to social conformity – people agreeing to the group when, in actuality, they disagree
  • Experimenter bias – where the person responsible for moderating the discussions can unintentionally influence the results based on their personal opinions


So, you shouldn’t do focus groups – right?


Well, actually… no.


I hate to admit it – particularly after what I’ve said above – but… focus groups do have their purpose. Using them early in your process to understand the motivations, the pains and the gains your audience is seeking is far more valuable than understanding their likes and dislikes.


And when run correctly and by a professional company that knows what they are doing – that know how to accommodate for the biases – then focus groups can be powerful marketing tools.


The difference is if you don’t know about the biases – if you don’t know how they can influence the results – then a focus group can be an incredibly dangerous thing for a business.


One run on the cheap is a worse decision than one not run at all.

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